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Pubdate: Tue, 13 Jul 1999
Source: Japan Times (Tokyo)
Copyright: © 1999 Japan Times
Author: Mayumi Saito

Culture of Cannabis

A Tokyo restaurant is serving up dishes with hemp. It's not illegal, it won't get you high, but if you go you might learn something about the 25,000 other uses for the weed.

Restaurantís ingredients in the pot
Hemp advocates slowly sprouting

Special to The Japan Times

There is an herb that can provide the base material for food, shelter and clothing, replace land-polluting crops and offer relief for the terminally ill. The magical herb is hemp, otherwise known as marijuana in the world of illicit drugs.

Whether its magic is black or white remains the subject of much debate. But products made from hemp are now hot in Japan. And the ambitions of marijuana advocates for its legalization are growing as well.

Having heard there is a restaurant in Tokyo that serves cannabis dishes, most people would likely ask: "Isn't marijuana supposed to be illegal in Japan?"

Huddled in a corner of Shimokitazawa, one of Tokyo's hippest districts, Cafe-Restaurant Asa (Hemp) proclaims to be a pioneer of the unique cuisine in this country.

Visitors are welcomed by scenes of a hemp field projected on a large screen on the wall and tables covered with hemp seeds and even hemp-made luncheon mats. In one corner, a collection of books and magazines about hemp in Japanese and English is displayed to enlighten patrons.

But diners need not worry about a police crackdown. Owner Koichi Maeda explained that his food contains only hemp seeds, which have very little THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive element in marijuana.

The Marijuana Control Law targets the plant's buds and leaves as a potential drug, while its stem and seeds are openly distributed in the market.

Hemp seeds in daily Japanese life are found in "shichimi" hot pepper or in birdseed. But Maeda was inspired by the seeds' versatility at the Hemp Expo in Germany in 1997 and opened this restaurant in August after developing his own recipes.

Try his Chirom Rolls with fried hemp seeds or the Space Drink, a shake made with shucked seeds that tastes like banana. Hemp seeds contain high levels of protein similar to those found in soybeans and vital amino acids, according to Maeda.

"All of the food was delicious," American English teacher Matt Cornell said. "My only disappointment was that I didn't feel high afterward."

The number of products that can be made from hemp is estimated to be over 25,000. Seeds can be used to make nutritious foods, while the stem and oil can be used to make fabric, paper, fuel and medicine. "Hemp can be used for food, shelter and clothing," Maeda said.

Maeda is a law-abiding restaurant manager but also a vocal opponent of the Marijuana Control Law. "Even as a drug, there are no reports of physical addiction to marijuana, as opposed to tobacco and alcohol," he said.

When NHK aired a documentary titled "Marijuana Use Increasing among Youth" in 1997, environmental attorney Hidehiro Marui said he found it exaggerated the dangers of marijuana, and the broadcaster distorted comments he made during an interview for the program.

Marui, who had worked on more than 150 criminal cases related to marijuana, filed a damages lawsuit seeking a correction to be broadcast by NHK and Y10 million in damages. The Tokyo District Court, the Tokyo High Court and the Supreme Court all turned down Marui's claim. The final ruling came out last year.

"Marijuana is just an herb," Marui said. "There are no cases of violent acts associated with marijuana. This is a fact shown in many previous studies and my own observations over 20 years in the legal profession." He added that its illegality, rather than any harmful side effects, tarnishes the herb's reputation.

Advocates are more interested in the herb's potential for industrial and medical use in the next century.

Strong, fast growing, herbicide-free hemp could be farmed for paper production and replace the land-polluting cotton industry, experts say.

As opposed to cotton, which requires a great amount of chemical fertilizer and herbicides to grow, hemp is strong and can adapt to almost any environment.

Industrial hemp was legalized in Austria in 1996, and now 100 tons of hemp is produced annually with a government subsidy of $800 per hectare.

In Germany, nearly 600 farmers are applying for similar subsidies to grow hemp, while no such applications are required in Switzerland.

An increasing number of Western countries are also becoming more lenient toward the recreational or medical use of marijuana. Germany is following the same path as the Netherlands, where marijuana products are available in shops and restaurants.

In the United States, medical marijuana was legalized in Arizona and California in 1996, following referendums backed by mounting evidence of its effectiveness in treating people with AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

Sixteen states have now moved toward decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes. The federal government has also decided to push a study of the herb's medical effects and allow a limited supply to "bona fide" researchers starting in December.

This international trend is slowly infiltrating Japan. In December, the Body Shop -- a British cosmetics company -- began locally promoting a series of hemp-oil products for their moisturizing and emollient effects.

The campaign caught the interest of young Japanese consumers without causing controversy, according to Body Shop spokeswoman Yuko Naruse. However, Body Shop stores in Italy and Hong Kong met police objection to their promotional poster, which depicted a marijuana leaf.

Patagonia, a U.S. outdoor gear company, is offering hemp clothing this summer, encouraged by their success last year in Japan. The hemp items are more costly than Patagonia's cotton products, but assistant marketing chief Shoichiro Maeda emphasized that hemp's ecological benefits fit in with the company's corporate image.

Hemp has a role in Japanese history. In the feudal era, it was used mostly as a textile for kimono for the working class, and for tatami, sandal straps and ropes. A small percentage was used as medicine. Under the Allied Occupation, the Marijuana Control Law was passed in 1948, presumably to keep Occupation soldiers from smoking pot.

Although some wild hemp is found in Hokkaido as a legacy of the plantations established during prewar development, licensed farmers and researchers grow 90 percent of Japan's hemp in Tochigi Prefecture for limited use.

Anybody wanting a license to grow hemp must have "a good, traditional reason for growing hemp in the field and an ability to conscientiously manage it," according to Hiroshi Yamamoto of the Health and Welfare Ministry.

No research on marijuana's medical applications has been conducted in Japan. But if it were to be approved for medicinal purposes, Yamamoto said, marijuana would be cautiously handed to a small number of licensed doctors, much like the prescription of morphine.

Japan Times
July 13, 1999

See also:
See also: news index.
See also: How dangerous is cannabis?
See also: The Cannabis Control Act

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